Manchester Assizes Courts

This magnificent building is the Manchester Assizes Courts, but it wasn’t until a friend gave me this postcard that I realised how powerful an image it would be for me. Detective Jerome Caminada spent many of his working days in this court and the building is not only significant for my own work, but it’s also an important part of my personal history.

The Manchester Assizes Courts were part of the infamous Strangeways Prison complex, just outside the centre of the city. Designed by Alfred Waterhouse, the law courts were completed in 1864. It was the tallest building in Manchester until 1877 when it was topped by the new Town Hall, also based on one of Waterhouse’s designs. As the assize courts dealt with the most serious offences, it was the everyday workplace of Detective Caminada. In this courthouse, he participated in the trials of some of his most challenging cases.

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In the autumn of 1887, at the Manchester Assizes Courts, violent burglar and arch rival of Caminada, Robert Horridge was convicted of the attempted murder of two policemen and sentenced to life imprisonment. Ironically, Horridge was born close by, in the shadow of the prison – it didn’t deter him from a life of crime. Young scuttler, Billy Willan was also convicted of murder at the assizes and was later spared the death sentence thanks to the efforts of Caminada and other supporters. A rare description of the detective was published in the Sporting Chronicle that revealed his behaviour in court:

Under examination Caminada’s answers come out short, sharp and decisive, with a certain “snap” about his words as if he was putting handcuffs on everything he says, to make his replies thoroughly secure.

After Caminada’s death, Judge Parry recounted the lively encounters between the detective and the counsel for defence, Charles McKeand. He said that ‘there was no love lost between them’ and Caminada enjoyed pitting his wits against the barrister, who relished the regular opportunities to cross-examine the detective. Comparing it to a cock-fighting, the judge said that both men knew the game well and ‘out of the clash of wits in these strange encounters justice was no doubt done.’

Just four years after the opening of the Manchester Assizes Courts, and as Jerome Caminada began his long career, my 3 x great-grandfather, John Dawson, was tried there for ‘keeping a disorderly house’, for which he received 12 months’ imprisonment, and which he served next door to the court, in Strangeways.

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The Manchester Assizes Courts were severely damaged during the Blitz and were finally demolished in 1956, less than a century after construction. Its forbidding neighbour, Strangeways Prison, is still there and is the only reminder of this lost building. Looking at this imposing image, it’s easy to imagine Detective Caminada before the magistrate, engaged in his everyday work of upholding the law.

Many thanks to Emmy Eustace for the postcard.